by Andrew Mooney
For the last decade, the beginning of a new Patriots season has brought with it the realistic prospect of a Super Bowl in a few months’ time. Much of the reason for this—and one of the only things remaining from those teams ten years ago—is, of course, Tom Brady.
You wouldn’t know it by his performance, but Tom Brady is 35 years old, and that fact has led to a slightly different air surrounding this year’s Patriots. The most successful franchise of the new millennium finds itself face to face with mortality. Life after Brady is no longer some vaguely unpleasant event to be dealt with in the distant future, but a reality that needs to confronted sooner rather than later.
For the present, however, that sense of hopeful anticipation remains. The Patriots are heavily favored to win the division and look like the smart pick to once again emerge from the AFC playoffs; Tom Brady is under center, and all is right with the world. But for how many more seasons will that be true? As the grey hairs proliferate, when will Brady’s performance slip?
To get some idea of the answer to this question, it makes sense to look at Brady’s peers, of which, admittedly, there aren’t very many. I took a list of career comparables for Brady from pro-football-reference.com—players who had careers of “similar quality and shape” through their first ten seasons—and examined how the ends of their respective football careers played out, hoping to find a hint of when we might expect age to finally catch up with number 12. The list is composed of nine (mostly) legendary quarterbacks: Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb (?), Trent Green (uh…), and Mark Brunell (eesh). I’ll dub those last three “worst case scenario.”
To measure each quarterback’s aging patterns, I calculated the percent change for each season from the previous year in a few key passing metrics: yards per passing attempt, adjusted yards per attempt (factors in touchdowns and interceptions), and quarterback rating (an imperfect statistic, but one that should reveal any significant underlying trends). If the quarterbacks suffered any sort of dropoff after ten years in the league, a trend of negative percent changes should be evident. Finally, I took note of playing time, as a low number of starts or games played wouldn’t be automatically obvious from looking at percentages.
As these quarterbacks entered their 11th, 12th, and 13th seasons, I found that, on average, their play didn’t suffer any noticeable decline. In fact, I didn’t find any pattern to suggest their performance differed at all; the fluctuation graphed below (up one year, down the next, then back up) looks more like the natural year-to-year variation in players’ statistics than any definite trend.
The reason I didn’t include any more seasons in this analysis is the same reason that the Patriots are likely to lose Brady, when he finally chooses to hang up the cleats: the number of players in my sample kept dropping as quarterbacks simply chose to retire. I can imagine that 14 years of NFL football isn’t exactly kind to the body, and it seems that, though the on-field product these quarterbacks delivered stayed at a reasonably high level, they felt the effort necessary to produce it wasn’t worth it anymore. Obviously, that wasn’t true for all nine of these players; I don’t think you’d hear anyone reminisce fondly about the golden twilight of McNabb’s or Green’s careers, but I also don’t think they’re the best comparables for Brady. I foresee the end of his career playing out like that of Roger Staubach or Brett Favre: capable from a talent standpoint of being a starting quarterback for another year, but physically unable or unwilling to bear the punishment of it.
The number of comparables used in this analysis is far too low to draw any firm conclusions, but it suggests that Brady will be just fine for at least the next few years. After that, however, anything is possible. He might decide that enough is enough and go out in fine form, or he could try to hang on past his expiration date, like Montana. Either way, there’s still time for Pats’ fans to appreciate what they have before it’s too late; as the 2011 Colts showed, there comes a time when the bill for prolonged dominance finally comes due.
This post can also be seen on Boston.com here.